When you walk into Grand Trunk CrossFit and see Nick Koulchar preparing to coach your class, it would be easy to be intimidated by his presence.
Here’s Koulchar — a veteran of the Iraq War who lost both legs in an EPF attack during a tour of duty in 2008 — staring grimly at the athletes as they enter the box, almost daring them (subconsciously, of course) to complain aloud about the squats on the schedule.
“I think most people would be surprised to learn I’ve got a pretty dry sense of humor,” said Koulchar. “But the athletes tend to be intimidated because of my injury.”
Koulchar came to Grand Trunk CrossFit after, as he puts it, trying every other CrossFit box up and down Grand River Avenue. For one reason or another, none of them were a fit for his unique needs until he met Brooklyn & Diana Netherton, the owners of Grand Trunk, in 2015.
After attending the gym as a member, Koulchar began work as a coach in 2016 after having a discussion with Brooklyn about how he could take his involvement a step further.
“Brooklyn is dedicated to setting everyone up for success, and that was one reason why I was attracted to making this box my home,” adds Koulchar.
The military was never really on Koulchar’s radar, at least not during his formative years.
He grew up playing all the sports, but took a liking to wrestling and football, as they gave him an outlet for all of the pent-up energy he possessed.
In sixth grade, he discovered weightlifting. Koulchar eventually took up competitive weightlifting in high school and won a national competition in Chicago as a high school junior. As a bigger guy, this type of competition suited him, and he was good at it.
But after finding weightlifting success during high school, his life took a detour.
His father, who had always struggled with diabetes, passed away a few years after he graduated from high school. Nick was left to look after his younger brother while not having the means to support even himself.
Like a lot of kids just out of high school without a solid idea of where to go in life, Koulchar spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and crashing at their homes after a night out, all with the added pressure of raising his brother.
But that got old real fast.
With nothing holding him back, Koulchar inquired about joining the military.
Koulchar says: “They told me in basic training that getting blown up was part of the job. If I didn’t like that, I might want to find a new job.”
He enlisted and left for basic training two weeks later. After training, Nick was stationed in Germany at the height of the Iraq War.
What most enlistees would find difficult about basic training, Koulchar found it exciting.
“It was physical fitness all the time,” he adds. “I actually enjoyed that part of the training. It felt like being a part of a team.”
After spending eight months in Germany, Koulchar was deployed to Iraq to keep enemy forces at bay and help rebuild infrastructure in the city of Sadr. Koulchar, as a combat engineer, was responsible for clearing the sewage-covered streets of the city so that allies could maneuver their vehicles in and out during missions.
It was during one of these missions where an explosively formed projectile, or EFP, pierced the armored truck he was driving in, killing the driver of the vehicle and severely injuring Nick. Even while suffering life-threatening injuries, he continued to help others in the unit until help arrived, at which point he started to lose consciousness as medics began to prep him for airlift to a surgeon who was awaiting his arrival.
“Having been trained in identifying the signs of somebody who is about to die, I knew I was dying on the ground in Sadr,” says Koulchar. “But I was determined to not make my brother bury me.”
(Side note: The army told Nick’s brother soon after to pack a backpack and be ready to fly to Germany at a moment’s notice if things turned grim. Thankfully, that backpack remained packed.)
Nick “died” nine times over the course of a few weeks after he was airlifted away from the scene, and had to endure more than four major surgeries in those first 24 hours to battle infection and trauma.
“Thankfully, we were close to a surgeon who could actually help me,” says Koulchar. “That, more than anything, saved my life.”
Following his life-saving procedure, spouses of members from his unit held vigil around his bedside, taking turns watching over him as he lay in a coma, alert for any sign he would emerge from it. But, as is often the case for members of the military, they were there to offer silent support.
“Those women didn’t have to rotate bedside duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” says Koulchar. “But they did, and I’d like to think, somehow, I knew they were there while I was in that coma.
When he was stable enough to be transported back to the States, Koulchar ended up at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he endured more than 60 surgeries.
He returned in 2017 to undergo the first stage of osseointegration, a surgery where an insert is implanted into an amputee’s femur to enable greater mobility and quality of life. In March of 2018, he went back for the final stage of the operation and stayed there until May of this year when his second son was born.
Like a lot of military veterans who return home with injuries, Nick had his battles with depression shortly after 2011. He gained a lot of weight as he struggled to cope with his new way of life, but he knew deep down that he needed to find a way to stay healthy. This led him to revisiting one of the things that had always brought him joy: weightlifting.
He also saw CrossFit as a way to stay fit, even for someone in his situation.
“The beauty of CrossFit is that it can be tailored based on the athlete’s level of fitness or physical condition,” says Koulchar. “For someone like me, it was nice to know I could do a workout and see real results.”
Fitness is going to play a large role in Nick’s life moving forward, if only because he saw how his father struggled with his diet and doesn’t want his kids to miss out on experiences because he’s not around.
“I lost my dad when I was 20 years old and had to endure some treacherous situations without his support,” he adds. “I owe it to my kids to be around to help them navigate their lives.”
In his corner through all of this has been his wife, Dani, whom he met at a veteran’s charity event in 2010. Through all the surgeries and the trips around the country to help improve Nick’s way of life, Dani has been the rock that helps keep him sane and keeps tabs on their two boys.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without her, and I say that with all of the sincerity in the world,” said Nick. “I wasn’t in a great place when I met her, but I can say my life has changed for the better since she’s been in it.”
As for the next stage of his life, Nick has some ideas.
“I’d like to open a space in Michigan that acts as a nonprofit to help veterans and a gym where people can come in and throw some weights around to stay fit,” says Koulchar. “Physical fitness is a great way to help the mental side of things, but sometimes you need help that weightlifting can’t reach.”
Until then, Nick plans to continue coaching and working out at Grand Trunk CrossFit. He knows the benefits that can be had from staying active, and he enjoys being there, even if it’s not obvious.
“The next time you attend a WOD and I’m coaching, try not to be too intimidated,” he laughs. “But never take for granted your ability to do squats, no matter how much they might suck.”
Photo courtesy of Operation Enduring Warrior.